The prolific composer and sound designer dug deep into his Appalachian heritage, layering a rich tapestry of fiddle playing with the emotional power of orchestral music, on Shannon Tindle and Peter Ramsey’s beautiful, heartfelt four-part live-action / animated miniseries, now playing on Netflix.
Wearing multiple hats and working in different mediums are common practice for Scot Stafford, composer and sound designer for animation, film, and AR/VR as well as the founder of Pollen Music Group. For Netflix’s live-action / animated miniseries Lost Ollie, Stafford concentrated on composing the score and delving into his Appalachian heritage for the story about a toy rabbit trying to regain his memories and reunite with his best friend Billy. The four episode show, created by Shannon Tindle and directed by Peter Ramsey, features the voices of Jonathan Groff, Mary J. Blige, and Tim Blake Nelson alongside live-action cast members Gina Rodriguez, Jake Johnson, Kesler Talbot, William Carson, and Isabel Birch.
At a February 2000 L.A. meeting with Tindle about a different project, Stafford learned about Lost Ollie. “Shannon said that he was imagining the scope and sound of The Lord of the Rings but set in rural Kentucky. I had to do this because my family is originally from West Virginia, which is the only state that is entirely Appalachian, and I grew-up spending every summer there. And I would memorize Elvish poetry when I was 12 and 13.” Stafford’s initial step was to take a deep dive into Appalachian folk music and read the book “Ollie’s Odyssey” by William Joyce. “Appalachian music is meant for the porch and is extremely unpretentious,” Stafford says. “The first thing that I did was buy a mountain banjo, which is fretless and has a bluesy sound. The second instrument I got was a mountain dulcimer, which has a much more European sound and has frets that are placed in a bizarre and interesting way. Those two instruments were my way in, and I wrote all my melodies to them at first.” The musician’s other key instruments were the mountain viola and the fiddle.
In order to incorporate the emotional power of orchestral music, Stafford collaborated with orchestrator, violinist, and fiddler player Stephen Spies. “I started working with Stephen to come up with these little Appalachian riffs that we would then pile on top of each other to create this big tapestry of 20 tracks of fiddle playing,” he explains. “So, it went from this intimate porch music to being this epic orchestral sounding music without losing the feel of Appalachia. But what was so interesting is when you would go from major into minor or play one riff the other way it was so easy to sound Cajun or Baroque.” Noting every musical decision was guided by one overriding factor, Stafford adds, “I have all these sounds, melodies, themes, sonorities, and textures in my mind but what do I do with them? Its 100 percent based on story. Once I was able to see the arc of each character, scene, and episode, it was clear what to use and when. From an instrumentation point of view, we knew that there was enough support to take this to the Budapest Art Orchestra; they’re phenomenal, especially their string section, and were affordable. We recorded in Atmos which meant that microphones were placed in the ceiling. You could hear the room in a special way throughout the score.”
Composing and picture editing are both slaves to and masters of timing. “I’ve always thought of dialogue as my lead singer,” Stafford shares. “If a lead singer is emoting a certain way and the band isn’t supporting them in the right way, it sounds like shit. I listen to the dialogue, follow the pacing of the cut, look at the characters’ faces and finally distill it down to one character per scene; that’s why you rely on the director so much to determine which character it is.”
Everything starts with a spotting session. According to Stafford, “You have a full-length rough cut of the entire episode in order. Some of the scenes are still in storyboard, some of the shots have been animated, some are somewhere in-between, and you have a dialogue recording hopefully at least half of it being the actors who will be in there. You go through with the director, and in the case Shannon and Peter, scene by scene, and talk about music. It’s hard to work without a spotting session.”
Tindle and Ramsey established early on that although the show’s main characters are toys, they can feel pain. “It’s like a good old dark faerie tale before everything had to be cleaned up,” remarks Stafford. “That’s what I loved about it so much. The two movies that Lost Ollie reminded me of were Watership Down and Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, which I saw as a double bill when I was five years old. Both of those cartoons have incredible levels of emotion, darkness, violence, and despair… and I loved it! In Watership Down the dog mauling happens at the end and in Lost Ollie it happens in scene two.”
Music should always take the characters seriously even in a comedy, Stafford shares, noting, “My first gig was the Pixar short Presto, which was a funny story about a magician and a rabbit. I originally thought I was going to do a vaudevillian cartoony score until I went into the art room at Pixar and saw what they were looking at for visual references. They wanted to make it look more like the Paris Opera house because it raised the stakes. That changed my entire paradigm because what I realized is it would be much funnier if the music was scored as if it was an opera or as this was the greatest magician in the world.”
Music provides plot clues to the audience. “The character of Zozo, which is this clown, has one of the most brutal and painful backstories I’ve ever experienced as a composer,” remarks Stafford. “Zozo is not who you think he is. It’s incredibly important for the composer to know how soon is too soon to start suggesting that and when can we finally reveal that moment. If the music tips the hat too soon then it sounds cheesy or predictable or ‘here we go again’ or cliché. That can be avoided if you just learn to wait long enough and make sure that you’re in lockstep with the director as to when is too early or just right.”
Stafford uniquely wove the song ‘All I Have to Do Is Dream’ into the narrative with great effect. “For the first two episodes Ollie is slowly remembering who he is,” he says. “A lot of it is based on the memory of a melody that Ollie keeps hearing in pieces. Normally you want to be clear about every element in the film but in Lost Ollie, we clearly wanted to be unclear. I wanted everything to feel that you’re about to reach out to hold onto something but then it’s gone. You literally don’t hear the full version of ‘All I Have to Do Is Dream’ until the last scene of the final episode. It’s almost like scoring in reverse.”
The series’ stellar animated characters, produced by ILM, seamlessly blurred the lines between live-action and animation. “Even with having watched so much animation, there are scenes in Lost Ollie that I am still convinced were done with puppets, but were all done in CG animation, which speaks to the animators, character design, and the rendering pipeline of visual effects,” states Stafford. “ILM did an amazing job.”
Composers often look at scenes that are not finished. “In an unfinished live-action scene you’re seeing the characters onscreen, but it’s not cut, lit, and colorized,” he says. “But in animation, it is really hard to get into the character when you’re seeing ghostly floating rigs that look like a video capture of Minecraft.” Lost Ollie exists somewhere between a series and feature. “The 33 tracks on the soundtrack, that’s just a selection. There are well over three hours of music, but it’s done at a clip where we got into this wonderful routine. What people love about series is that you finally get to know everyone and stay with them.”